Reification

by Gajo Petrović

The act (or result of the act) of transforming human properties, relations and actions into properties, relations and actions of man‑produced things which have become independent (and which are imagined as originally independent) of man and govern his life. Also transformation of human beings into thing‑like beings which do not behave in a human way but according to the laws of the thing‑world. Reification is a 'special' case of ALIENATION, its most radical and widespread form characteristic of modern capitalist society.

There is no term and no explicit concept of reification in Hegel, but some of his analyses seem to come close to it e.g. his analysis of the beobachtende Vernunft (observing reason), in the Phenomenology of Mind, or his analysis of property in his Philosophy of Right. The real history of the concept of reification begins with Marx and with Lukács's interpretation of Marx. Although the idea of reification is implicit already in the early works of Marx (e.g., in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts), an explicit analysis and use of 'reification' begins in his later writings and reaches its peak in the Grundrisse, and Capital. The two most concentrated discussions of reification are to be found in Capital I, ch. I sect. 4, and in Capital III, ch. 48. In the first of these, on COMMODITY FETISHISM, there is no definition of reification but basic elements for a theory of reification are nevertheless given in a number of pregnant statements:

The mystery of the commodity form, therefore, consists in the fact that in it the social character of men's labour appears to them as an objective characteristic, a social natural quality of the labour product itself . . . The commodity form, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connexion with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. It is simply a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things ... This I call the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities . . . To the producers the social relations connecting the labours of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, thinglike relations between persons and social relations between things.... To them their own social action takes the form of the action of things, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them.

In the second discussion, Marx summarizes briefly the whole previous analysis which has shown that reification is characteristic not only of the commodity, but of all basic categories of capitalist production (money, capital, profit, etc.). He insists that reification exists to a certain extent in 'all social forms insofar as they reach the level of commodity production and money circulation', but that 'in the capitalist mode of production and in capital which is its dominating category . . . this enchanted and perverted world develops still further'. Thus in the developed form of capitalism reification reaches its peak:

In capital‑profit, or still better capital‑interest, land‑ground rent, labour‑wages, in this economic trinity represented as the connection between the component parts of value and wealth in general and its sources, we have the complete mystification of the capitalist mode of production, the reification [Verdinglichung] of social relations and immediate coalescence of the material production relations with their historical and social determination. It is an enchanted, perverted, topsy‑turvy world, in which Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre do their ghost‑walking as social characters and at the same time directly as things. (Capital III, ch. 48.)

As equivalent in meaning with Verdinglichung Marx uses the term Versachlichung, and the reverse of Versachlichung he calls Personifizierung. Thus he speaks about 'this personification of things and reification of the relations of production'. He regards as the ideological counterparts of 'reification' and 'personification', 'crude materialism' and 'crude idealism' or 'fetishism': 'The crude materialism of the economists who regard as the natural properties of things what are social relations of production among people, and qualities which things obtain because they are subsumed under these relations, is at the same time just as crude an idealism, even fetishism, since it imputes social relations to things as inherent characteristics, and thus mystifies them.' (Grundrisse, p. 687).

Despite the fact that the problem of reification was discussed by Marx in Capital, published partly during his life time, and partly soon after his death, which was generally recognized as his master work, his analysis was very much neglected for a long time. A greater interest in the problem developed only after Lukács drew attention to it and discussed it in a creative way, combining influences coming from Marx with those from Max Weber (who elucidated important aspects of the problem in his analyses of bureaucracy and rationalization; see Lowith 1932) and from Simmel (who discussed the problem in The Philosophy of Money). In the central and longest chapter of History and Class Consciousness on 'Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat', Lukács starts from the viewpoint that 'commodity fetishism is a specific problem of our age, the age of modern capitalism' (p. 84), and also that it is not a marginal problem but 'the central structural problem of capitalist society' (p. 83). The 'essence of commodity‑structure', according to Lukács has already been clarified, in the following way: 'Its basis is that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity', an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all‑embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people' (p. 83). Leaving aside 'the importance of this problem for economics itself' Lukács undertook to discuss the broader question: 'how far is commodity exchange together with its structural consequences able to influence the total outer and inner life of society?' (p. 84). He points out that two sides of the phenomenon of reification or commodity fetishism have been distinguished (which he calls the 'objective' and the subjective'): 'Objectively a world of objects and relations between things springs into being (the world of commodities and their movements on the market). . . . Subjectively—where the market economy has been fully developed—a man's activity becomes estranged from himself, it turns into a commodity which, subject to the non‑human objectivity of the natural laws of society, must go its own way independently of man just like any consumer article.' (p. 87). Both sides undergo the same basic process and are subordinated to the same laws. Thus the basic principle of capitalist commodity production, 'the principle of rationalization based on what is and can be calculated' (p. 88) extends to all fields, including the worker's 'soul', and more broadly, human consciousness. 'Just as the capitalist system continuously produces and reproduces itself economically on higher levels, the structure of reification progressively sinks more deeply, more fatefully and more definitively into the consciousness of man' (p. 93).

It seems that the problem of reification was somehow in the air in the early 1920s. In the same year as Lukács book appeared, the Soviet economist I. I. Rubin published his Essays on Marx's Theory of Value (in Russian; see Rubin 1972), the first part of which is devoted to 'Marx's Theory of Commodity Fetishism'. The book was less ambitious than Lukács's (concentrating on reification in economics) and also less radical; while Lukács found some place for ‘alienation' in his theory of reification, Rubin was inclined to regard the theory of reification as the scientific reconstruction of the utopian theory of alienation. Nevertheless, both Lukács and Rubin were heavily attacked as 'Hegelians' and 'idealists' by the official representatives of the Third International.

The publication of Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts was a great support for the kind of interpretation of Marx begun by Lukács but this was fully recognized only after the second world war. Although the discussion of reification never became as extensive and intense as that about alienation, a number of outstanding Marxists such as Goldmann, J. Gabel and K. Kosik have made valuable contributions to it. Not only have the works of Marx and Lukács been discussed afresh, but also Heidegger's Being and Time, which concludes with the following remarks and questions: 'That the ancient ontology works with "thing‑concepts" and that there is a danger "of reifying consciousness" has been well known for a long time. But what does reification mean? Where does it originate from? . . . Why does this reification come again and again to domination? How is the Being of consciousness positively structured so that reification remains inadequate to it?' Goldmann maintained that these questions are directed against Lukács (whose name is not mentioned) and that the influence of Lukács can be seen in some of Heidegger's positive ideas.

A number of more substantial questions about reification have also been discussed. Thus there has been much controversy about the relation between reification, alienation, and commodity fetishism. While some have been inclined to identify reification either with alienation or with commodity fetishism (or with both), others want to keep the three concepts distinct. While some have regarded alienation as an 'idealist' concept to be replaced by the 'materialist' concept of 'reification', others have regarded 'alienation' as a philosophical concept whose sociological counterpart is 'reification'. According to the prevailing view alienation is a broader phenomenon, and reification one of its forms or aspects. According to M. Kangrga 'reification is a higher, that is the highest form of alienation' (1968, p. 18), and reification is not merely a concept but a methodological requirement for a critical study and practical 'change, or better the destruction of the whole reified structure.' (ibid. p. 82).           GP

Reading

Arato, Andrew 1972: Lukács's Theory of Reification'.

Gabel, Joseph 1962: La réification.

Goldmann, Lucien 1959: 'Réification'. In Recherches dialectiques.

Kangrga, Milan 1968: 'Was ist Verdinglichung?'

Löwith, Karl 1932 (1982): Max Weber and Karl Marx.

Lukács, Georg 1923 (1971): History and Class Consciousness.

Rubin, I. I. 1928 (1972): Essays on Marx's Theory of Value.

Schaff, Adam 1980: Alienation as a Social Phenomenon.

Tadić, Ljubomir 1969: 'Bureaucracy—Reified Organization'. In M. Marković and G. Petrović eds. Praxis.


Source: A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, edited by Tom Bottomore, Laurence Harris, V.G. Kiernan, Ralph Miliband (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), pp. 411-413.  Entry by Gajo Petrović.


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